Sitting around in a house in Indonesia over green agar-agar (seaweed gelatin) for diarrhea, the talk is of the “dog” POLRI police, the “sadis” TNI army, the local mob boss who likes to rape his servants (the servants are friends of this family), a framed son in prison due to lack of a well-timed payoff and his own culpable stupidity, the caterpillars that after house-floods like to crawl into your ears, the tiny worms that like to bore into children’s feet and then steal food from their intestines, buying “monja” — cast-off, used clothes from rich lands — and finding money, occasionally, in the pockets, but, most fundamentally, jobs, wages, a recent labor outrage, and the question of whether, in America, you have to pay a bribe to get a job, as you often do in Indonesia.
By the second hour the air starts stinking slightly of flood sewage. The thin wood walls have been stripped of tchotchkes. At first I thought — wrongly — that the little ceramic animals had been sacrificed: sold or brought to the pawnshop. But it turns out they had merely been taken down for holiday cleaning. The selloff involved other things.
You never really own anything if you’re poor. Its just a matter of time. You accumulate a little property and, then, if you’re unlucky, somebody steals it, or the police escort a bulldozer in, and simply level the house. But if you’re luckier, you’re compelled to sell (or pawn) your property to pay a series of, say, important bribes for which you actually get something in return, in this case the right of that locked-up son to eat soft rice instead of hard rice so that, on the way down, it doesn’t get stuck in his throat and trigger his fits of fainting asthma. That payoff costs about 70 US cents per meal, in addition to garbage money, key money, do-not-break-his-nose-this-week money, let-your-mother -visit money, toilet visit money, and 11 other kinds of money, if I counted correctly.
No soft-on-crime liberals, the family said that the kid deserved to do some time, though the offense was non-violent, nobody knew it was an offense, and the conviction flowed from a larger, fake, charge. The boy had screwed up, embarrassed the family, and now the predator state had its hooks in. These payoffs were bringing the family down. They were selling off everything.
Imagine, someone said, if they were really poor people, because in local terms, they weren’t, yet. The women rise at 4 am to make and sell mini cakes in the traditional market, on a good day hoping to clear a profit of 2 dollars 70 US cents. The men, when there’s work, sell durian fruit by the roadside or do pickup construction. That makes them “rakyat kecil,” literally, society’s small people; essentially, regular folks. But not really “orang susah” — people with woes. Those are the poor people, one family member had explained, when we met years ago.
She lived in a shack 12 feet off the railroad tracks, but liked to help the poor. As a Muslim, she would bring them rice and cooking oil for Ramadhan. Hindu family members did likewise ( “If I were President of Indonesia,” she once said, “I’d make sure everybody had a house, and I’d guarantee that all the children would be able to go to school.” She, like others, was surprised at the news that in some countries schooling was free.)
But today, in the house, as we all talked, the one they really felt for was the poor washerwoman down the alley who makes $18 a month and couldn’t pay the bribe to get her son a cell — a room about the size of an American kitchen, which accommodates 30 guys. So the authorities locked him, squatting, in the toilet — a very slippery hole in the floor. That’s where he’ll live until she comes across. He’ll have a lot of visitors.
Yet things could be worse. In the past year and a half two household members have died. But, despite the drain on their patrimony, their locked-up boy is still alive.
Likewise, thankfully, during this past year, none of the babies have died — that perhaps due to outside cash infusions, but such things are a matter of fortune. Of the two adults who died one was a man in his early forties, “middle-aged” by rich world standards, “old” in local terms. The other, a somewhat younger woman, that lady from by the railroad tracks, was a “tukang baca,” a craftsperson of reading, who was also considered old. The man went stiff as he was placed in a motorcycle sidecar. The woman ascended in the midst of a massive, violent, brain seizure.
In their cases, prolonging their lives might have required decades of better health care. But if you ruminate about that notion people look at you and laugh incredulously.
Four to five decades ago, when most of the “old” people in this house were kids, there was talk in Indonesia of revolution, or something like it; for starters, creating a situation in which thinking about schooling, housing, and health for all would not be ridiculous. That talk happened in the ’60s counterparts of places like the mechanic’s shop where that late man worked (his 2006 wage of roughly 55 dollars per month led many in the family to call him a “rich man,” but, unfortunately — everyone says — he didn’t handle money well), and the rice paddy where that woman was on the evening when she suddenly died.
The ’60s talk was led by a communist party that launched a byzantine intrigue against the army and that got obliterated in, in the CIA’s words, “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century” (declassified US CIA Directorate of Intelligence research study, “Indonesia –1965: The Coup That Backfired”, 1968). The CIA should know, since they gave a list of 5,000 targeted people to the army, but once they murdered the intellectual leaders, most of the victims were — as often — poor farmers. (See the interviews with US officials by Kathy Kadane, the American journalist, eg., Kathy Kadane, States News Service, “Ex-agents say CIA compiled death lists for Indonesians; After 25 years, Americans speak of their role in exterminating Communist Party,” San Francisco Examiner, May 20, 1990; also in Washington Post, May 21, 1990) .
Today there is no talk of revolution, but there’s a lot of bitter complaining. Among poor people I’ve met, the terms of art are “dogs” for the POLRI police, and “sadists” for the TNI army, navy, air force and marines. Its a term the soldiers have no doubt heard themselves, since they actually, on their website, ran a photo of army officers giving gifts to children, over the memorable caption : “Is It True The TNI Is Sadist?” ( “Benarkah TNI Sadis?”, web page: “Tentara Nasional Indonesia Angkatan Darat, The Indonesian Army, Galeri Foto, Arsip Foto, Juni, Agustus, Oktober,” online as of September 7, 2005, but later wisely taken down).
But on this afternoon, despite all the talk of payoffs — and, another matter of drug dealers supplied from on-high who are making the neighborhoods unlivable — the most agitated discussion is about the cancellation of the THR (Tunjangan Hari Raya).
This is the holiday season. Muslim Idul Fitri is wrapping up, and Hindu Deepavali began on Thursday. Usually, people lucky enough to have a wage job — and they are the elite of the poor — count on an ostensibly mandatory holiday bonus equal to one month of wages, known as the THR (“count on” is an optimistic choice of words, since wage workers frequently go long stretches without being paid at all. At PPD, for example, a state bus company in the process of privatization, workers have gotten nothing for the past five months. Their most vocal union leaders have been arrested by POLRI, and blamed for the lack of payment. [“MNC Today,” TV news, October 26, 2007]).
This year, at many factories and construction sites, the THR was abrubtly canceled, this at a time when Indonesia has made its debut as a site for global speculative capital, and when the recycling of money from Aceh relief/ reconstruction is going so well for Indonesia’s real rich people that in this town’s streets there are easy sightings of new Mercedes and BMWs, and within shooting distance of this tin-roofed house there is going up a previously unheard-of thing: a world-luxury-brand hotel that is to be the tallest structure in the province (another topic of discussion is that unfortunate young laborer who just fell to his death from, they say, the seventh floor).
The THR cancellation was a blow to the gut, since if you want your kids to not be stunted or to not develop slow brains, you have to budget like a corporate Chief Financial Officer, you have to maintain cash-flow consistency. The key is never having more than a couple of days of hunger in a row, since during the early brain-development years that’s when the damage gets done. Its rare to enter a poor household, including this one, that can claim to have always achieved that goal. When defining the difference between rakyat kecil like themselves and the really poor people, one mother in the house explained that rakyat kecil “are people who can eat every day.”
But if you don’t, its trouble for the small ones. So budgeting is huge: ‘X’ dime-equivalents for cooking oil; ‘Y’ for cooking kerosene; ‘Z’ for unhulled rice (four grades to choose from, depending on your level of poverty), and then, the big question, rice “pakai apa?,” rice served with what? Chopped peppers, oil, spices, onions and garlic only? Maybe a little tofu or tempeh? But these are the holidays, there should be meat, or at least some salted mini-anchovies. If a thirteenth of your yearly income is suddenly snatched its hard to plan for or have such things, not to mention meeting the demands of excited kids, counting on gifts of crisp new 1000 Rupiah — or, if you’re richer — 5000 Rupiah notes (9 US cents or 45 US cents) and, maybe, a new set of holiday clothes, a ball, or a set of pencils.
The blame for the yanking of the THR , in the view of some men who joined the discussion, fell on Vice President of Indonesia Yusuf Kalla and on the heavily ethnic-Chinese employers, ethnic thinking being popular everywhere in the world, but especially encouraged in Indonesia ever since the army took over during the 1960s slaughter.
But isn’t the whole point of being a big employer to get what you can from your workers? The old Dutch colonialists used to draw-and-quarter unruly plantation hands, and even did the same to one of their own governors, who was deemed to have gone native. A US business newsletter once noted Indonesia as a good place to invest due to labor discipline due to “the underlying threat of force.” When I first showed up in this neighborhood years ago excited people gathered round, asking if I was there surveying the ground to build a factory. They were disappointed when I said no, even though they had no reason to expect that it would be other than what we call a sweatshop — 11 hour days, toxic air, molestation of female workers by the foremen, and sporadically paid wages that are not enough to keep a family eating.
But as the foreign corporate PR people love to point out — their lips dripping with friendly cynicism — local people LOVE those jobs, or, more precisely, they really do covet them (what the corporates fail to point out is that those relatively-higher-than-average coveted wages are still so absolutely low that they could, say, triple them, thereby keeping various children alive — and still be making a killing).
Anyone who scores a sweatshop job here is considered to have hit the jackpot, so much so that there’s a lot of griping that you need connections to get one. Likewise, I can’t count the times that younger women here have asked me about the prospects for obtaining one of those servants’ jobs in Malaysia or Singapore. This despite the well-known stories of rapes, beatings, confiscated passports and unpaid wages, fatal falls from strange high-rise apartments, and the percentage who are informed by their “calo” (agent/ fixer) upon arrival on foreign soil that their real job won’t be cooking, cleaning, or cradling foreign babies, but, instead, having no-choice sex with yet-to-be-determined hundreds of foreign men.
Some are naive, but many are not. Those foreign wages are roughly six times higher. So if you want to keep the family babies away from too many brain-hunger days, as they used to say in the United States: you pays your money and you takes your chances (and that is literal, since you have to pay the agent to get the chance to become the servant).
One young man — stick thin, with bulging arm veins, and, he said, sore and tired from lifting cement bags, even though he hadn’t worked for many days — mentioned that there had been a number of demos in response to the canceled THR. But he wasn’t speaking as if the ground were shaking. The “orang kaya,” rich people, still rule, backed up by all those US/ British/ Australian/ and — soon — Russian weapons of the TNI/POLRI.
But there’s interesting news coming out of China, and it concerns the balance of power, the balance of power between those who merely want more money and those whose bodies need it.
For the first time in a long time there may now be upward pressure on world wages, since China’s market, which has been pulling them down, may now be starting to push them up. (for part of the story see, for example, Tom Mitchell and Geoff Dyer, “Heat in the workshop: The ‘China price’ is under upward pressure,” Financial Times, October 15, 2007).
If this is true, and those tsunami-like ripples start emanating through the global market, when they wash ashore in Indonesia, and other places, it could make for interesting times. The creation and distribution of wealth has long been a cold maneuver. Who gets depends in large part on who can get, whether they’re in position to do so. Part of that positioning depends on, to begin with, the crossing of certain thresholds: enough infant (and prenatal) food to make your brain quick, enough later food to make you strong, enough health protection to keep you still strong, enough education to make you a reader, enough housing to keep you safe from animals, thugs, and floods, enough sanitation to drain your emissions, enough clean water to make you happy and relaxed instead of sick, enough energy and time to think, and then — more grandly — enough of a labor shortage/ wage situation to give you enough leverage vis a vis the rich so that you can get enough wealth to cross those thresholds, and then begin the good stuff.
Its always chancy to rely on outside agency, especially on something that might not get there (eg., the China wage current, though fundamental, will be facing pull-down crosscurrents, like the WTO trade regime, and rising world food prices due to the increasing use of food crops and fungible land for biofuel), but the ugly reality is that if you’re spent and drowning, you’ll drown unless somebody (or something) intervenes and throws you a line.
So if some poor people get lucky and the market finally temporarily starts to break their way, that fortunate appearance of some meat on the rice could set the stage for bigger things, like, say, giving more people a chance to think and talk about doing more than complaining.
But one of the points about a pre-civilized world order, like the one we live in today, is that people are dying unnecessarily every day, every hour, every minute.
So whatever happens with regard to market wages, and with regard to willed social change, it will happen too late for the prematurely dead, too late for the already stunted, and perhaps even too late for many of the prematurely dying.
That tukang baca lady who once spoke of arranging houses and schooling for all is now resting (bodily) by the riverside, and there are loved ones of hers in this house who will probably also be gone soon, perhaps by next holiday season. The question is, which ones? But nobody speculates on that. They all say its up to God. “God selects, not us.”
But even if that is true, there is the co-existent fact that today’s world has enough liquid capital to prevent the preventable deaths. There is, in fact, so much wealth washing around that if a mere fraction of it were well-shifted, it could bring everyone who needs it above those bodily thresholds listed above.
Imagine, a world of people whose brains are OK. Who aren’t always sick. Who are strong enough to do a good job and literate enough to write about it. Its what an individualist in North America might call a level playing field. And what the people in this house might call an implausible paradise.
But rather than being in the hands of people whose bodies need it, that life-saving/ transforming money in question is in the hands of people who merely want it. Those holders of the potentially life-altering money constitute a relative handful of the world’s inhabitants, and they include not just the rulers, but also the global middle class.
Among that handful also reside the ones who have made the unexamined decision to forgo enforcement of the murder laws when it comes to official actions by officials, thereby clearing the way for things like arming armies and police that like to kill civilians.
For those in this rich, controlling, world minority there are decisions to be made. Decisions like whether to shift a little cash or let the dying die. And decisions like whether we’re ready to be even-handed in enforcing the murder laws.
For these rich ones, solving the solvable worldwide problem of mass, unnecessary death is a matter of some thinking, some action — perhaps, for some, various kinds of sacrifice — but little risk-of-life to speak of and, indeed, not even many real encounters with gratuitous death.
But for the poor majority in the world, those whose babies’ brain-growth clocks are ticking, it is a matter of some tougher stuff, like occasionally staring down gun barrels and deciding whether or not to risk your — and/or your family’s — life, but also, much more fundamentally, learning how to cope with, and overcome, the frequent, needless, ridiculous, death that is the background music of daily life. It can be pretty exciting and inspiring to be shot at by an oppressor. But it can tear your soul out from the inside to have a loved one die too soon.
Earlier this year, before he got locked up and pulled the family into the vortex, that young man sat in this very room and tried to console an inconsolable relative. Evidently tired of the weeping before him, he suddenly rose from his crouch, and, to the astonishment of everyone — this is a very quiet young man — he suddenly launched into a declamation on the matter of death and living. “These eyes can only emit tears,” he said. “They are incapable of emitting blood” (the point being that crying merely produces tears, which are useless salty water, as opposed to producing something useful, like blood, which is the stuff of life). “Do not be sad! We cannot be crushed by grief! This world still exists! There are still tasks to be performed” he said. “We must remember that.”
As an answer to grief, it was helpful, but insufficient. But as a statement of political outlook, the kid definitely had a point.
Allain Nairn can be reached through his blog.